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Difficult Histories

Seniors grapple with the Holocaust and the importance of oral history 


“The Holocaust is almost an unknowable history,” says Dr. Morgan Guzmán. “It leaves you with more questions than answers because of the depth of the suffering.” 

Dr. Guzmán has a Ph.D. in German History and taught at Bentley and UCLA, before joining our history faculty this fall. The idea of teaching this senior elective came up in her interview with Crystal Land, she recalls. “The students had asked for an in-depth, nuanced course reckoning with the Holocaust,” she says. “It’s a difficult history to teach, especially if you’re unsure.” With her time spent reckoning with these atrocities, she can handle it with sensitivity and an analytical depth, guiding students through intense, philosophical questions. 

When discussing the genocide perpetrated by Nazis, historians and students alike come up with more questions than answers: What does the Holocaust mean about German history? What does it mean about humanity? How did this happen? How do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?

“It’s a big class. It’s a heavy class, but these students showed up,” says Dr. Guzmán. “I want to honor their contribution because the class is so dense, deep, and dark. Everybody is camera on, present, engaging, reading texts, wrestling and struggling.” 

"Dr. Guzmán was the first teacher to ever empower me to check in with myself during intense readings by showing us what we should look out for (ex. racing heart)," says Rosemary A. '21. "However, it was more important to know that my classmates were just as outraged, appalled, disgusted, overwhelmed, angry, and deeply saddened as me." 

Two books frame the course. The first, Christopher R. Browning's Ordinary Men, “looks at a specific group of Nazi soldiers stationed in the countryside,” says Dr. Guzmán. “Horrible, incredibly graphic text. Browning finds court transcripts of men on trial and what he sees are portraits of ordinary men who were turned evil by sociological and psychological factors. These men, he says, came in men and left monsters.” 

The second text is the result of “a graduate student who reads Browning and leaves horrified.” Browning's implication, says Daniel Goldhagen, is that anyone could become a Nazi. He wrote Hitler’s Willing Executioners to argue there was “nothing ordinary about these men. They wanted to kill. They were antisemitic.” 

These two historians, Dr. Guzmán is quick to point out, cite the “exact same primary sources: the same photos, letters, the same quotes––but they came to radically different conclusions about humanity.”

Over the course of four weeks, the students, in pairs, read the separate texts, thinking deeply about the facts, and then debated the meaning. It’s an important lesson for these students to learn, that history isn’t necessarily about mastery of material, but critical thinking, reflection, and connections. 

"As a Jewish person this subject is very close to me and I was shocked by how much I learned about myself, my identity, intergenerational trauma, and internalized antisemitism through this class," says Jena T. '21. 

"How you view the world shapes how you understand history,” says Dr. Guzmán. “Do you view the world as people subject to outside forces or do you believe people are inherently one way: good people and bad people?” 

Although “the students are very nervous about making connections,” says Dr. Guzmán, the recent wave of antisemitism in the United States came up in their discussions. “Their nerves are understandable because you don’t want to equate something with the Holocaust and risk dishonoring the memory of those lives lost. It’s hard to make comparisons without being offensive or flippant.” 

Dr. Guzmán teaches her students that “Connection is not equivalence. Resonance and foreboding are not equivalence. It’s fundamental to take this history and hold up a mirror to our current time, so we don’t do it again. We do so delicately.”  

After spending the fall semester mired in this difficult, dark history, the students “built strong relationships,” with their peers and teacher. A few students mention they called one another after reading about the atrocities. "We didn't know what to do about our distress but just having someone who was feeling similar emotions was impactful," says Rosemary A. '21. 

They now have a strong foundation of trust, and a shared knowledge base, as they move into their second semester together, studying oral histories. “I was really taken by Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem,” says Dr. Guzmán, “when she says: ‘Being American is more than a pride we inherit. It's the past we step into and how we repair it.” 

In their current elective “Living History, Empowering Voices,” students study oral histories, learning the reasons for and resonances of these recordings. “Oral history gives those who’ve been ignored or passed over the chance to tell their story,” Dr. Guzmán. “And elevates them to the level of historical witness, so their story is recorded, held, and heard. So that history can be re-evaluated.” 

Rose C. '21 was struck by the story of Ruth Chan Jang, a Chinese-American woman in the Women's Air Corps, especially "her experiences working and living with other women in the army, from playing basketball with them, to getting a surprise birthday party from her friends, to her observations on racism and sexism within the army."  

Students are learning how to listen, contextualize, and recast stories. Too, they’re reckoning with dynamics of privilege and bias. "How the interviewer speaks impacts oral history,” says Dr. Guzmán. “The approach can be traumatizing.” She cites WPA slave narratives, taken by Jim Crow-era white people as an example. “That’s a rich source that has been contaminated.” 

"I was outraged," says Rose C. '21, remembering "an interview conducted by a white woman in the 1930s of Ms. Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, a former slave. The interview began with the most offensive and tone-deaf excerpt from Shakespeare: 'Sweet are the uses of Adversity,/ Which, like a toad, ugly and venomous,/ Wears yet a precious jewel in its head.' It's slavery. It's not sweet, it doesn't give you precious jewels, and adversity is the lightest possible way to describe what Ms. Graves went through." It was important for the students to learn how their own identities might  shape an oral history and have tangible examples of what not to do.  

After listening to, studying, and discussing oral histories, students will record their own. They've begun to think about which voices they might be able to uplift. 

"I plan to speak to a community hero/ leader named Steve Owyang," says Rosemary A. '21. "He is a retired judge, a lawyer in the Asian Law Caucus who championed using the law to protect Asian Americans, and he helps run a program named Roots which connected Chinese Americans to their ancestor's villages in China. I think his voice would be very relevant today as anti-Asian violence continues in America."  

Looking ahead, Dr. Guzmán hopes this can be a recurring senior elective, perhaps with ties to the CCE or even taught with a sister public school in Oakland. “Maybe we could build an oral history archive,” she says. “I want to do this here at Head-Royce, especially with these students because they’re so engaged. They're so great.”  

We can’t wait to check back in with these students at the end of the semester and listen to the stories they’ve unearthed.